Superman goes to Berlin
Look! Up on the wall!
by Eric McHenry
SFA Adjunct Professor Peter Hoss and four of his students are creating a Superman that will not, at 25' by 10', be mistaken for a bird or a plane. Like its subject, their mural is larger than life.
And soon it will be flying around the world. The collaborative work is the centerpiece of an exhibit scheduled to occupy Germany's prestigious Raab Galerie August 22 to September 5. Lisa Caplan ('00), Che Chen ('01), David Goodman ('99), and Lauren Healy ('99) will travel with Hoss (SFA'69,'74) to Berlin for the show's opening. There they will have several days to visit museums, galleries, and landmarks and to install and touch up the mural.
Peter Hoss -- Works on Paper is the product of a professional correspondence between Hoss and the gallery's owner, Ingrid Raab. One of Hoss' former students, Rilana Vorderwülbecke (SFA'98), a longtime friend of Raab's, first put the two in contact. They developed a rapport and a mutual admiration, which led to an invitation for Hoss to bring art and art students across the Atlantic. After securing financial support from the University, Hoss happily accepted. He handpicked his four collaborators, conscious of the need to get a group whose members would complement one another. Along with the mural, each of its student-creators will be represented by one or two individual works. Hoss will show about a dozen original pieces, and Vorderwülbecke, now residing in Berlin, will also contribute a few.
The Superman mural makes use of a motif that has been of interest to Hoss since the early 1980s. Initially, he says, the D.C. Comics character was attractive as a model because it allowed him to combine his traditional training in figure-drawing with unconventional subject matter -- something lifted from the world of fiction, rather than from the world of people and trees. Hoss used the character's "monumentality" and status as an American icon to remark upon popular culture and entertainment, he says.
Those qualities make the giant mural a particularly provocative piece for overseas exhibition. Like the nation for which it is in some respects an ambassador, the piece, which currently dominates an SFA studio wall, is various and chaotic; it is composed in many media, including tempera, pastels, spray paint, charcoal, chalk, pencil, and photocopies, on medium-weight drawing paper.
"From watching him work, I definitely think that combining disparate things is something that Peter enjoys," says Chen. "It's something he really likes to push in his work. But usually it seems like he does it more with compositional or formal elements than with content."
Any collaboration will necessarily be a uniting of the disparate; in addition to integrating multiple media and five artists with five unique sensibilities, the piece is inclusive in its content, bringing together distinct genres, techniques, and themes. The superhero is flanked by his name in jutting block letters on one side and a jumble of what were once realistic urban scenes on the other. He flies fist-first over a riot of amorphous, sprawling figures.
"When we first started work on this," says Healy, "we were looking at a lot of mural artists and talking about how to compose a mural. Then we started looking at comic books and thinking about transforming a comic book page into a large piece.
"The large word 'SUPERMAN,' in the corner, and the figure of Superman are very literal," she says. "All of the figures at the bottom start to become more formal. It brings together Peter's current approach to his work with some of his earlier ideas and with some of our own ideas about the project."
One of the reasons the piece is so substantial, Hoss explains, is that it needed to meet, spatially as well as thematically, the demands of the venue.
"I was in Germany in March to visit the gallery," he says. "The space she has is enormous. I walked in and thought it was a gymnasium or something. It's just mammoth. And I thought, 'Well, okay. We'll do a big one.' "
Chen says the artists hope to break their mural down into about four manageable units for shipping.
"It's sort of a conservator's nightmare," he says. "It's just paper stapled to that wall, and one hard part is going to be getting it down. We're going to have to get up on ladders, find every staple, and pull it out. And there are staples in the middle of the piece, because we had to patch places. Not ripping it is going to be a challenge."
Hoss's harum-scarum approach to mural-making is a reflection of his artist's philosophy, which he inherited from the late SFA Professor Philip Guston: he puts primacy on fun. Discussing art in general and the project in particular, he uses the word again and again.
"Fun is a very relevant and vital thing for me," he says. "Philip Guston took art -- this thing that I held so sacred -- and he just had fun with it. At times he almost seemed to be making fun of it.
"After a while, your ability to make art is going to shut down on you if it becomes an effort, if it becomes a bore," he says. "And I try to make sure that I've conveyed that to my students: you have all sorts of options and opportunities. It doesn't have to be drudgery."
That's not to say Hoss looks upon the upcoming show as anything but a serious undertaking. Although he's given the students considerable freedom to direct the piece's development -- even when their choices have run counter to his expectations -- he says he reserves the right to make "a final edit."
"I'm scared to death at this point, as I am all the time," he says. "We've got to finish it. How do we do that? How close is it? It's a question that never really goes away. We'll probably put it up on the wall in Berlin and I'll see that I want to do some more, and I'll do some more."